The "Toy Story" series seemed to have reached a satisfying conclusion with its third installment, released almost ten years ago. Yet here we are again, primed for another chapter of the Pixar animation studio's most beloved franchise. I admit that in the past I've felt skeptical of the need for a new "Toy Story" movie. But then one opens and it wins me over, finding new ways to wring emotion and heart from a story that appeared to have run its course.
That this latest installment is the funniest and most idiosyncratic of the series so far shows that it's entirely possible there's enough juice left in these stories to take Woody, Buzz, and the gang to infinity and beyond, free to continue giving generations of viewers neuroses about never getting rid of our old toys.
As established at the close of the last film, Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz (Tim Allen), and co. were given to a little girl named Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw) after their previous owner, Andy, headed off to college. Some of the toys have had to learn that every child is different, and Bonnie isn't Andy. Cowgirl Jessie (Joan Cusack) has become Bonnie's sheriff of choice, and Woody's not sure what to do with himself as he finds himself left in the closet during playtime with increasing frequency.
Looking for some way to remain useful, Woody stows away with an anxious Bonnie as she attends kindergarten orientation. Secretly assisting her with a craft project, Woody ends up helping her create a googly-eyed spork named Forky from supplies rescued from the garbage. The comfort Bonnie finds in her new friend imbues him with life, and suddenly there's a new addition to the band of toys.
No one's as perplexed by Forky's sentience as Forky is, and he desires nothing more than to go back to the garbage from whence he came. So Woody frantically tries to keep Forky from flinging himself into the trash, fishing him back out again once he inevitably does. Constantly horrified at his existence and longing for oblivion, Forky is truly a character of and for our time. But when Forky launches himself out of the family RV while on a road trip, Woody has to go out and bring back a friend that's come to mean so much to Bonnie.
The "Toy Story" series is one that's shown a willingness to explore new ideas and take its characters in unexpected directions. Of course, there are recurring patterns to the storylines: as with past films in the series, the basic plot takes the form of a rescue mission as Woody intrepidly sets out to wrangle up a lost toy and bring them back home. But like those other films, the plot is only a springboard allowing the filmmakers to explore deeper ideas.
With any Toy Story film, it's really about the details. This has always been a series that's unafraid to get existential, and each of the films' plots have correlated with major milestones in the life of a child, from getting a new sibling to eventually leaving the nest. Now comes the question: "what comes next?" A natural evolution for characters we've come to love over the past nearly 25 years, the plot is attuned with the melancholy that's always been at the core of these films.
We're introduced to a host of other new characters, including a pair of carnival-prize stuffed animals (Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele), Canadian stunt motorcycle toy Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves), and pull-string doll Gaby Gaby (Christina Hendrix), who seems set up to be an antagonist in the vein of past villains Stinky Pete and Lotso. But she turns out not to be entirely what she first appears to be. We learn that she came out of the box with a broken voice speaker and what she wants more than anything is fix herself and find a child who will love her the way she deserves. But considering the way her plotline ultimately plays out, the intended message becomes a bit muddled.
And in the film's most resonant plotline, Woody meets up again with Bo Peep (Annie Potts), who we learn has been living on her own since being removed from Andy's room. Far from feeling sorry that she never found a new owner, she shows Woody that the life of a lost toy isn't so bad, and that there's a new path forward and an entire world of possibility once their kids no longer need them.
Director Josh Cooley keeps things lively, staging a variety of hilarious and entertaining set pieces in between pulling our heartstrings. Once again Woody and his friends get a glimpse into the lives of toys who haven't been as fortunate as they've been. They've had the chance to be loved, and throughout the series, there's been a realization that they've had it pretty good compared to the sad, lonely lives lived by so many other toys.
According to this series, the life of a toy has its joys, but more than its share of angst: years serving the needs of the children who own them, worrying whether they'll still be played with, and constantly living in fear of being abandoned or forgotten. They've learned to be thankful for whatever time they have with those who mean the most to them, and this film reveals itself to be about the importance of living for your own happiness instead of anyone else's.
More than the previous film, "Toy Story 4" feels like the beginning of a new chapter for its beloved characters. And I've learned my lesson about worrying about new movies in the series: if they continue to be made with as much thoughtfulness and care as this one, I'm happy to keep following these toys anywhere.